Internet’s future is portable
I applaud the visionaries at the Truckee Donner Public Utility District for their aggressive pursuit of a broadband future for Truckee. At the time they conceived their vision the need was clear but the solution less so. Now, the needs seem blurrier but the solutions more defined. Truckee desperately needs a broadband provider that can provide competitive broadband services now and provide competitive broadband services everywhere. But do we need one that provides duplicative TV services or one that can deliver hundreds of megabits per second to homes tomorrow? All would agree that having another provider of broadband, television or phone services is, in general, good for Truckee. However, whether the PUD should become that provider is a very different consideration. There are three issues with the PUD’s broadband initiative that should be considered:• Whether we’re building for the future with adequate insight into the future needs of customers; is fiber the only future-proof technology? Capacity of wireless has increased from 2mb/sec to WIMAX’s purported speed of 70mb/sec in ten years.• Whether a risky, complex plan incorporating video/TV services costing $24 million is worth its primary benefit of “a local choice.” If the PUD can raise $24 million maybe they should consider securing more water rights or doing resource-conscious land development and giving profits back to us as lower rates and a better living environment.• Whether the distant break-even point significantly increases risk of economic failure as competition grows and prices drop. Fiber-to-the-curb projects do fail. A future, community-oriented broadband service provider should consider portability right next to capacity and cost, yet it seems to have been completely overlooked. With portable broadband we can check a child’s safety at preschool while ordering a coffee in the drive-thru, watch the final 10 minutes of the big game while shopping, receive or send photographs of a new real estate listing from anywhere in (or out of) town, retrieve an accident victim’s medical records at the scene, check the weather cams on Donner Summit from Tahoe Donner ski area. None of these communication scenarios are that far in the future. Notebooks and PDAs serve as the “access terminal” today; tomorrow it could be cell phones with WIMAX built in. Compare the number of people that might like portable broadband services with the number of people who need hundreds of megabits to their door. The Tahoe economy is tourism and real-estate based. Which capabilities might tourists and the real-estate industry like? These examples represent only one benefit of installing a wireless system – portability. Another benefit is lower cost. A wireless system might cost one seventh – only a few million dollars – of the cost of the fiber-based system to build. Ongoing revenues could be about half of the current plan. Overall profitability of the business would be far greater and the risk lower. A wireless system can cover everyone today and can be expanded with more capacity tomorrow as demand/density increases reducing up-front cost to deploy and risk.Another benefit is speed to delivery. A wireless system might be rolled out in most of Truckee in months – not years. Using licensed spectrum (as opposed to public spectrum or WIFI-based services) means most areas could get the proposed full benefit of WIMAX – 70mb/sec capacity delivered reliably and safely over tens of miles. The downsides? Compression and other technologies will make television over wireless broadband systems possible so capacity isn’t really an issue. Reliability? Security? Given the two fiber optic cable cuts that SBC has seen in the last four months, wireless is arguably more reliable than fiber. Good data security over wireless has always been available. It just costs a little extra to deploy. Wireless would be a faster, better and cheaper option for Truckee’s future. Wireless already serves some Truckee communities that cannot be reached by other providers. Wireless could easily be extended first to communities most in need. Wireless can provide more than adequate capacity for the foreseeable future to allow for heavy-duty applications like video conferencing and server operation. Why wouldn’t the PUD choose to change the plan? Maybe they think that we will eventually want the capacity of the fiber system, so why settle for lower capacity wireless? Let’s put in fiber if we really need it in the future when it’s even cheaper to install. We may never need it. The wireless system is so cheap it could be a back-up or portable-only system if fiber became desirable – an approach several communities have explicitly chosen. If I were on the PUD board, I might be afraid of criticism for an embarrassing mid-project technology change. Embarrassing? Maybe. I’d hope they decide that being right is worth the embarrassment. Let’s let them off the hook now and encourage the PUD visionaries to raise their eyes from their bold implementation plan to refocus on the new future needs of Truckee and plan an appropriate, less-expensive, lower-risk course. Devin Koch is the CEO of Exwire, the area’s wireless service provider.
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If Israel and the United Kingdom are any indication, widespread vaccination will knock the pandemic down to … normal life. Something near.